Stockhausen Edition no. 16

Karlheinz Stockhausen – “Mantra” for two pianists (1970)
Alfons Kontarsky [piano], Aloys Kontarsky [piano]

Stockhausen 16
. Duration: 65:20.

As “Mantra” begins you immediately feel that this is much more than any kind of piano duo that you’ve heard before, and at this point I’m strictly speaking in terms of sound. You wonder if the pianos are mechanically prepared (associating to Cage), but no, they’re not.

There is an aura around each tone rising out of the doubled keyboards, and the aura flutters and bulges, breaking the waves of the sound into millions of little glistenings, in a magic luster diffusing out of the core tone, three-dimensionally. The luster of the tones hovers suspended in the listening space – inside the listener! – vibrating in an array of moving colors. Some people may get associations to a submerged state, into some kind of fluid; not necessarily water, but into some other kind of fluid, like TIME or what the ancients called the ETHER, or something else that bends the senses like gravity bends light, passing by dense celestial bodies. The shots of light off of he surface of the sound even renders the music an impressionistic quality, however farfetched that notion may seem. You’ve seen the water surfaces of Monet, for example, and the sudden – but constant – lustrous light phenomena on bodies of water from the sunlight seeping down through leafy crowns of trees in the wind. In “
Mantra” it might as well be a much stronger Bardo Thödol light shining through your karma-ridden spirit, as you’re most probably heading for a re-entry into the chain of rebirths and deaths. The possible experiences are many in Stockhausen’s “Mantra”, just through the listening process where the sounds are channeled through the prism of your personality, of that which is YOU at this certain stage, and maybe on to that which is YOU in communion with the ALL, and which is the core of you and me and existence and space and time…

The effect that I have described above is the result of processing the sound of the pianos through a specially constructed piece of machinery including ring modulators. Stockhausen explains it in detail in the CD booklet:

So called ring modulation, which I have employed as a technical process, makes possible a new system of harmonic relationships. To this end, each of the pianists has an apparatus at his left into which a microphone amplifier, a compressor, a filter, a ring modulator, a scaled sine-wave generator and a volume control have been built. The piano sounds are amplified by two microphones and ring modulated by sine-waves. Behind each piano stand loudspeakers, which project the modulated sound simultaneously with the played sound. The modulated sound should be slightly louder than the original sound”.

Those are the facts of the arrangement, but that really says nothing about the splendid auditive effect that is achieved, and which is nothing short of magical!
However, the result seems to depend a lot on performers and technical personnel alike, since another recording I have of “
Mantra”, on the label New Albion, with the pianists Yvar Mikhashoff and Rosalind Bevan, doesn’t quite reach these heights. The technician at that recording (1986) was Ole B. Ørsted, who, it seems, constructed another apparatus for the New Albion recording. The different machinery might explain the paler impression of the Ørsted recording. Mr. Ørsted has designed machinery for Professor Stockhausen at times, so I’m sure he is a very skilled and initiated professional – but his “Mantra” is – in my unprofessional view – less intriguing than the recording which appears on Stockhausen Edition No. 16. Maybe the composer himself does not agree; I don’t know. His characteristic handwriting is apparent in the word “Mantra” which appears on the cover of the New Albion issue, and the print on the CD says “Published by Stockhausen-Verlag”. Probably this CD was issued before Stockhausen retrieved the formal rights to his recordings from other recording companies, though.
However, the recording of “
Mantra” which Stockhausen regards as the best so far is the one featuring pianists Ellen Corver and Sepp Grotenhuis on the Dutch TMD label (TMD 950601), and after I've been given the opportunity to listen to this magnificent rendering of “Mantra” I have to agree. It's an unsurpassed recording of the piece. I know Stockhausen-Verlag has plans to obtain the rights, to offer it together with the Kontarsky brothers' CD, and I hope Stockhausen will succeed in this.

Alfons & Aloys Kontarsky
(Photo: Werner Neumeister)

A thing that at first was a mystery to me concerned the sounds that do not appear to stem from the pianos. At certain instances it seems that some kind of metallic percussion is utilized. In fact, “Mantra” begins with these sounds! Well, it was no mystery at all. I got the explanation from Kathinka Pasveer at Stockhausen-Verlag that this CD was among the first to appear in the Complete Stockhausen Edition, and that they didn't really have the knack of how to present the material then, which is why they left out some details in the booklet text. This will all be fixed in a new printing later. The shrill sounds come from antique cymbals, prescribed in the score.
Yet another thing that didn't fail to catch my attention was the emergence at 0:08 on index no. 19 of shortwave sounds! These are also, however, scored! The wooden percussive sounds stem from wood-blocks, scored too. The vocals of index 20, by Alfons and Aloys Kontarsky, are also scored and required.

The music changes characteristics as it goes on, and index 23 displays a piano playing that is so fast and rhythmically structured that my thoughts go to Conlon Nancarrow and his “
Studies for Player Piano”, and some of his bluesy studies at that, in an aquarium type of setting, as if you look through an aquarium, seeing the fish and the winding growth, but also the world outside behind the aquarium, in the sunlight on the street (I’m thinking about a street in Helsinki, Finland; Orioninkatu…) where people walk back and forth in a chilly winter, and the roofs of the cars are snow-laden. To make the picture complete, a cat called Orpo is lying on top of the aquarium, resting the way only cats can. Yes, “Mantra” sets many things in motion inside me, and I light a good incense stick and sit back, headphones over my head, my inner gaze focused far away in distant happinesses… Thank you, Professor Stockhausen, for providing the means, the vehicle, the Mantra!

Lake Båven in Södermanland, Sweden
(Photo: Ingmar Holmåsen)

If we look at the formal structure of “Mantra” we find that Stockhausen here applies something he calls “formula” for the first time, but which reappears frequently later on, in, for example “Inori” and “Sirius”.
A mantra is, of course, a mystic formula handed down to a disciple from a guru, for the disciple to repeat and meditate on, and keep to himself. The word comes from the Sanskrit, where it means, approximately, “sacred counsel”. It is derived from the Sanskrit word “manyate”, which literally means, “he thinks”.

The real basis for “
Mantra” is a thirteen-note motif; formula, allotting each note specific characteristics regarding duration, rhythmics, intensity and so on. This thirteen-tone formula is the mantra. Each note determines a large portion of the work. “Mantra” consists entirely of a continual series of the formula, of the mantra, with superimpositions of itself. In each of the larger thirteen cycles – each one derived (expanded) from the characteristics of the thirteen singular notes – a different one of the mantric characteristics dominates. Each part of the mantra is reflecting itself, mirror-like, upside down, stretched, compressed, twisted. The mantra itself, though, doesn’t change throughout this, since a mantra, in the Sanskrit meaning of the word, cannot change once it has been received by the disciple.

The fast event before the end of the piece (which triggered my vision above with the wintry scene of moving people seen through an aquarium in Helsinki) is a compression of the whole work into a short duration, where all the expansions and transpositions are collected and displayed very fast in four layers).

Stockhausen says: “
In each of the thirteen large cycles of the work, each pianist tunes in a sine tone to the central pitch around which all the mantra transformations are centered. The first pianist presents the upper thirteen pitches of the mantra in succession, and the second pianist the lower thirteen pitches, the mantra-mirror.
Every first and thirteenth pitch of each recurrence of the mantra is thus identical to the mirroring sine-tone; hence they sound completely consonant, and thus completely natural – like piano notes. Depending on the intervallic distance of the other mantra pitches from the mirror pitch of the ring modulation, the modulated notes sound more or less dissonant, and have spectra unlike the piano (minor seconds, minor ninths and major sevenths produce the most dissonant modulator sounds, octaves and fifths the most consonant). Hence one perceives a continual respiration from consonant to dissonant to consonant modulator sounds, resulting from the precisely tuned relationships between the modulating sine tones and the modulated piano notes

Stockhausen drew out the contours of “
Mantra” in Osaka in May and June of 1970. He composed in his hotel room for three hours each morning, before heading for the German pavilion of the World Fair EXPO 70 and the spherical auditorium where he performed his music. Then in July and August of 1970, after spending time in Ceylon, Stockhausen worked out the score of “Mantra” at home in Kürten.

Mantra” was a breakaway in more than one way, since it also was the first fully notated score since “Carré”. In Michael Kurtz’s book “Stockhausen – A Biography”, you can read the following quote from a conversation between Jonathan Cott and Stockhausen, where Stockhausen says this about the beginning of “Mantra” as it occurred to him during a car trip from Madison to Boston in 1970:

I was sitting next to the driver, and I just let my imagination completely loose… I was humming to myself… I heard this melody – it all came very quickly together: I had the idea of one single musical figure or formula that would be expanded over a very long period of time, and by that I mean fifty or sixty minutes. And these notes were the centers around which I’d continually present the same formula in a smaller form… I wrote this melody down on an envelope.”

It might also be interesting to see what the composer had to say about formula composition in an interview that Guido Zeccola conducted with Professor Stockhausen at the Electronic Music Festival at Skinnskatteberg, Sweden in June of 2000, reprinted here with the permission of Mr. Zeccola (Only the words of the Professor are reprinted here):

The idea of ‘formula’ was born as a reaction to my work in Osaka 1970. For five months I listened carefully to all works I had composed so far. I became very tired of the so-called Alea. Randomness had become more important than the work as such. In pieces like ‘Prozession’, ‘Spiral’, ‘Pole’, ‘Expo’ and even ‘Hymnen’ I couldn’t stand anymore the free improvisations that the instrumentalists did. That was when I began composing ‘Mantra’, which is the first composition based on a formula. After that I have developed this idea much further.
‘Formula’ is like the seeds sown by a man, a seed that fertilizes the woman. It amazes me to ponder the fact that a microscopic element, an incorporeal sperm, is able to fertilize another human being, to generate a new complex being who contains a plentiful genetic inheritance. This mystery is also valid for the musical genetics.

The formula in the compositional act is a sum of different elements; mental, trans-mental, psychological, intelligent, intuitive, rational, irrational and so forth. It’s like causing life.

A formula is a very small musical structure, a kind of musical seed, which like a DNA is programmed with different and varied musical elements, from the raga and the tala to the themes of the fugues and the sonatas, from the musical cells of the impressionism to the serial series, from micro-tonality to electroacoustics. The formula, therefore, is an integration of all these elements, constituting a cultural inheritance, prepared and produced by cultures, divergent between themselves, since the dawn of time

Once again Stockhausen had found a new way of composing. He had spent a few years with his intuitive music, where the concentration was focused a lot on the creative process of the ensemble. In formula composition Stockhausen found a way to let a musical miniature provide the framework, allowing for different ways of realizing the music.

Stockhausen in the CD booklet: “
Naturally, the unified construction of MANTRA is a musical miniature of the unified macro-structure of the cosmos, just as it is a magnification into the acoustic time-field of the unified micro-structure of the harmonic vibrations in notes themselves”.


Volume 18